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Finding a State Capitol

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Had Robert Lucas, the first territorial governor of Iowa, been allowed to carry out his plan to find a permanent location for the territorial capitol, Iowans still might be trying to find the site.

On November 12th, 1838, Governor Lucas proposed to the first territorial legislature that they provide by law for the appointment of three disinterested men of known integrity and weight of character who could exclude every interest of a local and private character in selecting a site for the capitol.

There was no hope of finding three such Iowans. Sectional rivalry had already split Iowa into north and south halves, and into river towns and prairie communities. Every town had dreams of becoming the capitol. The legislators rejected Lucas’s plan and made a motion of their own. They proposed that Burlington be the temporary capitol for three years and Mount Pleasant then become the permanent capitol.

There was only one objection to Burlington, but on the Mount Pleasant motion, there were 26 amendments, each one, in turn, naming another Iowa city as the permanent capitol. Each amendment was rejected in turn.

They might be squabbling yet, had it not been for an ingenious compromise. Each city finally agreed that if it couldn’t be the capitol, no other town could, either. All 26 ruffled feathers were smoothed when legislator Stephen Hempstead of Dubuque (one of the losing towns) proposed that the legislature ignore all local interested and that the capitol of Iowa be located on unoccupied and still surveyed public land. In spite of minor problems—no one had requested such land from Congress and building lots would be hard to plat on surveyed land—the legislature passed the bill. Governor Lucas eventually signed it and appointed several commissioners to meet at the village of Napoleon on the Iowa River on May 1st, 1839, to determine a site for the capitol.

That’s how the capitol of Iowa came to be located nowhere. In keeping with that spirit, and careful not to show special preference or give offense, even in names, the legislature chose as generic a name as they could for the new capitol. It was to be called Iowa City.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Humanities Council and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, with additional funding from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.